In 1976 Richard Dawkinss study of evolutionary theory became the first popular science bestseller. How do its ideas stand up today?
Its 40 years since Richard Dawkins suggested, in the opening words of The Selfish Gene, that, were an alien to visit Earth, the question it would pose to judge our intellectual maturity was: Have they discovered evolution yet? We had, of course, by the grace of Charles Darwin and a century of evolutionary biologists who had been trying to figure out how natural selection actually worked. In 1976, The Selfish Gene became the first real blockbuster popular science book, a poetic mark in the sand to the public and scientists alike: this idea had to enter our thinking, our research and our culture.
The idea was this: genes strive for immortality, and individuals, families, and species are merely vehicles in that quest. The behaviour of all living things is in service of their genes hence, metaphorically, they are selfish. Before this, it had been proposed that natural selection was honing the behaviour of living things to promote the continuance through time of the individual creature, or family, or group or species. But in fact, Dawkins said, it was the gene itself that was trying to survive, and it just so happened that the best way for it to survive was in concert with other genes in the impermanent husk of an individual.
This gene-centric view of evolution also began to explain one of the oddities of life on Earth the behaviour of social insects. What is the point of a drone bee, doomed to remain childless and in the service of a totalitarian queen? Suddenly it made sense that, with the gene itself steering evolution, the fact that the drone shared its DNA with the queen meant that its servitude guarantees not the individuals survival, but the endurance of the genes they share. Or as the Anglo-Indian biologist JBS Haldane put it: Would I lay down my life to save my brother? No, but I would to save two brothers or eightcousins.